The ?American Dream,? or the ethos that you can achieve success and upward mobility no matter your circumstances was prevalent in my family ? my grandfather was a truck driver, my grandmother a domestic worker, and my mother taught herself how to code without a college degree. My destiny was to fulfill the ?American Dream? by ascending the final rung of the class system as a doctor or lawyer. I chose lawyer. Well, lawyer chose me: when I was five, I wrote a Bill of Children?s Rights advocating for us, kids to sit with the adults during Christmas dinner (too many reruns of Schoolhouse Rock, ?I?m Just a Bill?). Henceforth, I was claimed the future lawyer of the family.
I didn?t mind it. Actually, I loved it ? over the years it was a huge ego boost and self-fulfilling prophecy. The praise I received for even the idea of making my parents proud was enough motivation to overachieve.
But after taking the LSAT, getting accepted into George Washington University School of Law, and completing my first year, I wasn?t happy. It?s been a few years since I dropped out, and whenever I get asked why I dropped out of law school, I hesitate; it?s been difficult for me to articulate the external and internal factors that motivated my decision. This should make it more clear:
External ? The Law School Institution
The prestige game:
The law school you go to matters. I spoke to tens of lawyers and former law-students before enrolling, and they made it clear that I should work for two years at the best government agency or law firm where I get a job offer, then go to the best law school I get accepted to. The prestige of your law school would help with networking, finding clerkships, and increase your authority in the field. It was odd that instead of asking me about what I was passionate about and pushing me into that field, their advice was solely focused on ways I could make progress within the system.
The prestige game never seemed to end. I went to a top 25 law school, but across most law school student forums I frequented and people I spoke to, I still had only about a 30% chance to come out with a job at a firm.
Once you get accepted, then it?s the prestige of the law school journal you?re a part of, where you intern, how many interviews you get for a summer internship, etc. And after, the law firm or agency you work for and the political game to get to partner or general counsel. It became less about the work and the mission I had to help people.
Bottom of the barrel:
At GW law, first year students are placed into four cohorts. Cohorts are more common in larger law schools ? my section was around 100 people with about 400 students in my class. The administration tells students they review each applicant and place you in the cohort you?re most likely to succeed in. The reality is that you?re grouped by LSAT, and as a result, how well they expect you to do your first year.
My section was the one with the lowest LSAT scores. There was some cohort envy, everyone wants to be at the top of the class and to know that your group is the last group expected to do well wasn?t great. But being in our cohort was both positive and negative. On one hand, there was more opportunity for us to rank higher in the first-year class. On the other hand, the morale of our section was low: there was less interaction, communicating, and sharing notes with each other. It made law school more lonely and competitive than I imagined. A lot of us became overly obsessed with how faculty and students in other sections viewed our intellectual and legal capabilities.
The Socratic Method:
The Socratic method, a teaching practice where the professor calls on you about a topic and questions you until you don?t know the answer can be a nightmare. It?s not always bad if you?re well prepared, but having to read and take notes on hundreds of pages and case studies each week, you?re bound to miss a few homework assignments. Attendance still counts as part of your grade, so most students attend class whether they?re prepared or not. It?s better to be embarrassed for not knowing the answer, than to get marked down for attendance and miss taking notes on a lecture you?ll need for the exam (they don?t give you lecture recordings unless it?s an excused absence). On those days, I had panic attacks and hyperventilated in the bathroom before class. We try to avoid the professor?s gaze, but they have this spidey-sense ability to detect when you?re trying to avoid them, and the embarrassment ensues. I wouldn?t say this was a major reason for me dropping out, but it became clear that law school was less about learning and more about upholding a rigorous reputation.
Tortoise v. The Hare:
In a two-part podcast, Malcolm Gladwell addresses the paradox of legal education and a legal career. He found the LSAT and law school exams benefited quick-thinkers and penalized people who take their time to work out solutions to legal problems. For Criminal Law ? in which the final exam was around 95% of your grade ? you read about an incident between multiple parties and had to write an essay that included as many criminal acts as you could identify. As a working lawyer, you would have time to mull over the situation, game each indictment and possibility, then present a detailed analysis of your conclusion. However, in a law student?s case, you?re not rewarded for in-depth analysis, you?re graded on your superficial pattern matching abilities. I was more of a tortoise ? I wanted to think long and hard about a problem, and then offer a detailed answer. This wasn?t how law school worked, and I found myself jaded by who law school was rewarding and who they were punishing.
While I received a $10,000 scholarship, it barely put a dent in my tuition, which was $60,000/year. If you include books, transportation, and rent, I took about $70,000 out in loans for a single year and expected to have around a quarter of million dollars in student debt by the time I graduated. If I was paying less, I think there would?ve been more of a reason to stay, but I?m not sure what the numbers would?ve had to look like. Plus, if I wasn?t sure of being a lawyer (and at the time I wasn?t), it wasn?t reasonable to follow through with an extra $140k in loans and more years of my life.
Law school has an alcohol problem. There were too many events that involved day drinking. Like seriously. I didn?t mind it as much at 25 (I was probably a high-functioning alcoholic before then anyway), but now it?s apparent that we were all numbing ourselves.
Image by John Hain from Pixabay
A deeply fixed mindset:
The problem with labeling children as a doctor or lawyer is that they cultivate the mindset that they?re only good at certain actions or behaviors. In her book, Mindset author and psychologist, Carol Dweck discusses how those with this fixed mindset don?t have as much grit or willingness to learn as those with a growth mindset. Throughout the majority of my academic life, I only tried to solve problems if I felt like I would be naturally good at it. And for a while, it worked; up until law school. I started encountering problems that I didn?t get at first glance. Instead of using the experience to work harder to understand, I internalized it as a failure. Soon, my ability to not solve problems quickly morphed into my inner dialogue saying, ?I?m not good enough to be a lawyer.? My grades were decent during my first semester, but those doubts lingered in the second semester.
What you want when you are 5, probably isn?t what you want at 25:
The January of the year I started law school, I buried my father. He suddenly died in December, and he was only 49.
Grief puts a lot of life into perspective.
There were questions that I never asked myself: Why didn?t I answer his last phone call? How could I have been a better daughter? Was I a good family member?
I started questioning my behavior in all my relationships: Was I a good friend? A good partner? Was I showing care and appreciation for the people I love?
I didn?t like the answers to the questions I was raising. I was consumed by a false self-projection: being the general counsel, or deputy secretary of international trade or whatever. And I realized I had been willing to achieve those goals at the risk of not being there for people I love.
A year in San Francisco:
I didn?t set out to drop out of law school. I started by taking a year off. My boyfriend was part of a start-up and was moving to San Francisco. I decided to join and give our relationship the closeness it needed to thrive. That year, I deliberately tried activities I wasn?t necessarily good at but enjoyed and was interested in, mainly writing. I had never thought to pursue a creative profession. But after moving to SF, seeing the drive and passion other people had outside of government and law, I realized it was at least a possibility.
After the year, I asked myself if I had 25 years left to live (if I also passed away at 50), what did I want to do? None of the answers involved being a lawyer.
Becoming a lawyer is a difficult, but well-defined path. I knew that embarking on something creative where I could blaze my own trail was a more worthwhile pursuit.
Law school will always be there, but saturation and automation problems linger:
Most people go to law school as part of a 2nd, later-in-life career. If working as a lawyer was something I wanted to do, after all, I knew I could go back. I haven?t had the urge.
There may already be too many lawyers. Now with start-ups like LegalZoom, fields like contract law and immigration law are declining. You also don?t need a law degree to do legal-related work ? you don?t need a degree to work in advocacy or for a campaign or non-profit. Areas like constitutional law and criminal law will need lawyers since it requires interpretation that can?t be automated, and if I feel passionate about those subjects I can find my way back to it. And having acquired a few more years in the workforce, I feel like I could finish law school and not fall into the same traps as I did five years ago.
But, law school hasn?t changed much. With the cutthroat atmosphere, the rankings game, and lack of creativity, I?ve been happy with my decision.
This article was originally published on http://jackie-williams.net/.
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